Frederick Jackson Turner and the Frontier

The famed historian Frederick Jackson Turner, whose legion of disciples included Edward Everett Dale and other Oklahomans, crafted in his lengthy essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at this time, an enduring theory of American Exceptionalism. That is, the notion that the American people and country are not merely different from others, as, say, Germany is from Brazil, but singularly and qualitatively set apart from all others.


Turner also argued—with eloquence and sweep—the primacy of the westward frontier and settlement experience in the development of United States social, political, and economic uniqueness:


“In the settlement of America we…observe how European life entered the continent, and how America modified and developed that life and reacted on Europe…The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick, he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion.


“In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs…


The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. At first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics.


“Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history.”


Indeed, Turner pointed to the frontier—rather, the many frontiers, including Oklahoma, that Americans settled, through many chapters, and many generations—as the locus of this uniqueness:


“This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.”


Opposing Voices


Many historians have opposed Turner’s Frontier Thesis, for many reasons. These include C. Gregg Singer, who criticized it for substituting a modified (Karl) Marxian approach to history of materialism and environmental determinism in place of the biblical worldview that holds humans as active, more so than acted-upon, moral agents.


On another level, Singer cites Turner’s suggestion that Americans’ frontier-focused environment spawned a capricious, free-flowing continuum of malleable beliefs and actions ruled by the current democratic majority:

“American democracy was born of no theoretical dreams…It was not carried in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier. Not the Constitution but the free land, and abundance of natural resources opened to fit the people, made the democratic type of society in America for three centuries.”


In contrast, Singer cites the Constitutional Republic established by America’s Founding Fathers, comprised of a distinctive structure of social and political doctrines. The essence of Singer’s challenge boils down to this question: Did Americans build their nation—and Oklahomans their state—based on the naturalistic theory of what proved most materially effective, or upon permanent values and beliefs? That is, did the material shape the philosophy, or vice versa?


Turner overlooked a range of other influences on the development of the collective American character as well, including the settlers’ individual “old country” cultures and traditions (historian Clyde Wilson), and the enduring influence of the Puritans’ “City on a hill” vision. Still, Americans and the American experience had long taken on an unparalleled form in the eyes of the other peoples of the world.


Was the “rugged individualism,” optimism, and violence identified with the consensus American character and its “conquering” of the vast continental frontier, myth or reality? Likely liberal portions of both. And did that frontier act upon its conquerors or vice versa? Again, probably both.

 

The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Ancient-Statehood

which can be purchased HERE.


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